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On Being My Own Bike Mechanic; Weekend Maintenance and Tinkering

December 2019
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I saved myself about $50 Saturday and have made for a happy wife at the same time. A friend of ours who has a lot of high-end bikes loaned my wife a Cannondale SuperX Ultegra gravel bike that he had sitting around and figured it’d be better to let someone use it than have it collecting dust. She’s been trying to ride the wheels off the bike for weeks now, and she’s fast on it.

My wife took the bike into the shop to have the front shifting looked at a few weeks ago, but they figured we wouldn’t want to pay to fix someone else’s bike – and I didn’t want to mess with someone else’s bike. They cleaned everything up and sent it back with my wife. Well, the front shifting became pooched again over the last week of mucky miles. The front derailleur was completely unworkable.

So I took the whole shifting system apart and got to cleaning everything and installing new guides that had gotten gummed up with dirt over time. The shifter cable also had a couple of kinks in it that were completely messing up the operation of the shifter itself. Kinky is all bad when it comes to cables.

Installing the new cable, the new guide housings, lubing everything up, trimming the shifter cable and tuning it took about 45 minutes and the bike is shifting like it’s brand new again. I also fixed the routing of the cable at the rear derailleur that wasn’t factory proper, so the rear mech works a lot better now, too. That took another ten minutes. And I’ve got about $5.00 in parts into the whole ordeal.

I love being able to be my own mechanic. I love fixing bikes, and as I become better at it, as my confidence grows, the speed with which I can take these things apart and put them back together has increased exponentially. What used to take hours, takes minutes.

The other day I installed new chainrings on my Venge… prior to that, new handlebars for both my Trek 5200 and Specialized Diverge. A brake cable on my wife’s road bike, then setting up her old Specialized Secteur so she could have a trainer bike. I’ve got enough bikes the possibilities are almost endless. New internally routed shift and brake cables for the Venge (not that was a chore, though I’ve learned to use a magnet to make things easier and A LOT faster).

Bikes will generally provide years of worry-free riding, unless you really ride them – and we ride our bikes. Keeping a high-end bike tuned and running properly takes a little bit of effort. Cables go bad over time, they collect road dirt, and lightweight parts wear a little faster that their heavier brethren. Gravel bikes take a beating. To keep them running optimally, and that’s really the point here, optimally, it takes a little work here and there.

If I could put a figure on it, I’d guess, by performing almost all of the maintenance on our many bicycles, I’ve easily saved $3,000 (or a decent bike) over the years. And it’s satisfying to be able to take a gorgeous bike and make it run like new.

So here are a few of my tricks, if you have a hankering to get into wrenching yourself:

  • Be very careful with carbon fiber frames. Over-tight bolts void the lifetime warranty on the frame. And yes, they know if it was an over-tightened bolt.
  • Use the Bike Repair App when you’re new – all bike wrenching requires following steps, doing certain things in order. Mess up the order, and you’ll make a mess of your steed.
  • Buy the right tools for the job. Some tools are expensive, so you might want to leave those repairs you don’t have tools for to the pros.
  • It’s easy to become frustrated when things aren’t working out. I’ve learned the problem is almost always me… If I take a step back, take a bit to calm down, I always find my mistake when I go back – and it’s almost always missing a step in the process.
  • Bicycles are exceptionally simple machines. They only appear to be complex. If you’re stuck, YouTube and a good search will usually straighten you out.
  • Start with brake adjustments, then derailleur adjustments, then brake cables, then derailleur cables… then take the crank apart and put it back together… then the headset.
  • DON’T MESS WITH THE DERAILLEUR SET SCREWS UNLESS YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE DOING. Many bike shop trips have been initiated by the simple turn of a set screw. Look at it this way, it’s a set screw. Once it’s set, you rarely will need to change it.
  • Don’t neglect the rear derailleur’s pulley wheels. They’ll squeak when they need attention, and they’re ultra-easy to remove, clean and reassemble. Just do one at a time – it’s very important they go on the right way, and the upper and lower are location specific. Put the lower on the upper and your shifting won’t work as it should.
  • A regularly cleaned drivetrain will last four times longer than a dirty one – even if the dirtier system is regularly lubed.
  • Disc brakes are easier than rim brakes, believe it or not, and rim brakes are easy.
  • If you don’t have a work bench with a peg board (I don’t), keep your tools in a gym back or a toolbox – and they get heavy, so one with wheels.
  • WD-40, which is a BAD chain lube, is excellent at getting grease stains out of carpet. It’s also good for removing sticker/decal goo.
  • If you want a decently clean chain, soap and water (wet lubes only, won’t work on wax/dry lubes). If you want a clean chain, mineral spirits. If you want a sparkly clean chain, gasoline. Gas will dry really well, too, so you’re not adding lube on top of the thing meant to cut it. Be environmentally careful with it, though.
  • Rinse off your gravel/mountain bike immediately after a mucky ride – they clean up a lot better and faster before the mud has a chance to dry and cake on.
  • Clean the headset on the A road bike once a year. Two to three times a year for the rain bike. Four or more for a gravel/mountain bike. They get dirty fast on a dirt bike.

8 Comments

  1. Anthony says:

    I would like to be more competent with my own bike. I have even considered going to Park Tool school on one of my vacations. The only problem with the idea is that I would have to go in Winter, and then probably wouldn’t get at my own bike till Spring.
    Maybe I could work part time at a bike shop…..then probably spend all wages on bike stuff. Oh to dream
    Congratulations on the repair work, and definitely good advice.

  2. OmniRunner says:

    Doing your own maintenance is always satisfying!

  3. biking2work says:

    I have enjoyed the journey of learning to repair and maIntain my bike. Gear cable replacement and replacing disc pads are my latest achievement and fairly inexpensive if they go wrong. I also have a great book and You Tube is also an excellent research tool. BTW, WD-40 is also an excellent solvent to lift silicone sealant in the shower tray and kitchen bench

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